America Before Columbus

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America Before Columbus


Early Prehistory. More than forty thousand years ago the Paleo-Indians began migrating into North America across the great land bridge that connected the continent to Asia. How they taught their children the skills necessary for survival in the Ice Age environment is unknown. Based on studies of ancient stone tools, refuse sites, and skeletons, archaeologists have forwarded several suggestions about the kind of culture the earliest immigrants had. It is fairly certain, for example, that men and perhaps women hunted in large groups mammals such as mammoths and giant sloths. Extending such inferences to the care and rearing of children, however, is quite difficult.

Archaic America. Over time changes in the climate of North America and improvements in Paleo-Indian hunting skills decimated the continents large mammal population. In the absence of big-game animals, Paleo-Indian groups had to adapt to the various local environments across the continent. Some of the groups, whom archaeologists call Archaic Indians, hunted deer or bison while others fished; foraged for roots, berries, and seeds; or killed small game. The methods parents used to teach their children in this phase of American prehistory are as murky as for the Paleo-Indians.

Classical America. The Indians of North America learned how to cultivate crops from the Indians of the central Valley of Mexico. By approximately 1500 b.c. the knowledge and skills to cultivate plants such as corn, squash, and beans had spread over much of North America, and the innovation sparked a transformation from Archaic to Classical cultures. The Classical cultures that arose with horticulture shared remarkably similar lifestyles with the Indian tribes that formed after the diseases introduced by Europeans to North America killed approximately 90 percent of the continents aboriginal population. For this reason it is possible to infer how Classical Indians might have educated their children based on records left by later European observers.

The Southeast. The Southeast was home to the Mississippians, whose culture was characterized by the construction of ceremonial mounds, the production of agricultural surpluses, and the occupation of towns and small villages. In Mississippian society kinship was traced through the mothers and not the fathers, so the mothers clan had the responsibility of teaching her children. A boys maternal uncles would provide him at an early age with a blowgun to practice hunting squirrels, birds, and other small game. Mothers and aunts likewise showed young girls how to sow seed, to weed gardens, to manufacture pottery and clothing, and to prepare food. The most important dates in young peoples lives involved the shedding of blood. When a boy killed his first enemy, he was accorded the titles and privileges that separated men from boys. When a girl had her first menses, she was taken to one of several menstrual huts that stood on the outskirts of Mississippian settlements. Here she probably learned the lore and magic that distinguished women from girls.

The Northeast. Horticulture was common among many of the native groups that inhabited the Northeast. The ancestors of groups we know as the Iroquois, the Narragansetts, and the Powhatans shared a division of labor and, presumably, a method of education that was similar to that of the Mississippians. There were, however, important differences. Mississippian societies were more stratified than northeastern ones, so whereas the children of Mississippian chiefs may have been excluded from mundane chores or privileged to learn more sacred

arts, northeastern children probably shared a more common educational experience. Warfare and menstruation were also equally important as markers for the transition from adolescence to adulthood. One northeastern group, the ancestors of the Abenakis, did not farm. Young girls instead probably learned how to gather nuts, berries, and plants from their mothers just as their female counterparts in horticultural societies learned to farm.

The Great Plains. Early Plains peoples mixed aspects of settled and migratory lifestyles. They grew crops in permanent villages but left them during the summer months to hunt buffalo on the plains. Just as among the horticultural southern and northeastern societies, women farmed and probably instructed young girls to do the same. Boys probably followed their fathers on the hunt and sought by feats of bravery to slay their first bison or their first enemy. Because of their mobile pattern of residence, Plains groups may not have had the same institutionalized method of isolating menstruating

women, so much of what women had to teach girls was probably passed on in the fields, in the homes, and on the migratory hunt.

The Southwest. Southwestern ceremonial life revolved around earthen sweat lodges called kivas. Here religious leaders and medicine men honored their gods and spirits and probably taught young boys the secrets of the sacred world. Because women oversaw the crops that grew in their irrigated fields, they probably spent a lot of time with their daughters and nieces and instructed them not only how to grow corn but also how to ensure through magic their crops success. Among the nonhorticultural Indians of California sweat lodges were also important places in the education of males. Elders also taught boys how to make bows, arrows, and arrowheads. Menstruation marked an important transition in the lives of young females. They were secluded at this time, prohibited from eating meat, and visited by their female relatives, who lectured them on the responsibilities of being women.

The Northwest. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest subsisted on fishing, hunting, and gathering. Maternal uncles took their nephews to fish and hunt around age seven or eight. Uncles also toughened boys with icy baths, sweating ceremonies, and hard work. After their first successful hunt boys were feasted and accorded the respect of adults. Girls lives centered on their first menses, at which point they were confined for perhaps two years. During their seclusion female relatives taught them everything they needed to know to enjoy a prosperous home life and a beneficial relationship with the spiritual world. Among the inhabitants of the drier Great Basin, families foraged together for food, and perhaps children learned how to collect plants and hunt for animals. Parents did not differentiate their children by sex; however, a females first menses ended her existence as a gender-neutral person and made her socially and culturally a woman.


Michael S. Nassaney and Kenneth E. Sassaman, eds., Native American Interactions: Multiscalar Analysis and Interpretations in the Eastern Woodlands (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995);

William Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volumes 7, 8, 9, 11 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, 1979, 1986, 1990).

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